Have you noticed that the “new normal” economic predictions are sounding a lot like the “old normal” that Englewood has lived with for generations? Luckily, our downtown has an opportunity to change that through an exciting business opportunity that few have noticed. It is called the Residential/Commercial Transition Overlay District, (RCTOD) which is a zoning overlay that allows for specifically defined, and limited commercial activities in several blocks of our downtown residential neighborhoods. The idea is to create a Walking Arts District that would enhance and expand the Dearborn Street experience.
The purpose and intent, language from Article 7, Special Zoning District; RCTOD. “This district is intended to encourage activities such as home-based office, art gallery, artist studio, and bed and breakfast establishments, as well as low-intensity office, professional and institutional uses. The adopted standards are designed to permit and encourage the coordinated development of mixed land uses and activities in a concentrated area to attract both residents and visitors. Internal sidewalks and pathways are encouraged between separate activities or establishments. The mixed-use component will allow office spaces in residences and residential dwellings above or behind shops.”
To help inspire a “better normal” for our downtown, the Old Englewood Village Association, (OEVA) will be partnering with the Sarasota County and our fellow associations to raise awareness and investment in the zoning overlay that both created the RCTOD, and held it back for too many years. Too few residents, artisans, retiring artists, performers, and craftsmen know about the exiting potential that our RCTOD zoning offers.
Englewood’s Community Redevelopment Area, (CRA) advisory board has established a RCTOD sub-committee, adopted the zonings update as a project, and will host public hearings which will aid Sarasota County in its final adoption of the updated zoning overlay. Once that is done, public and private investments will be needed to connect the Dearborn Street merchants and our community activities to the Walking Arts District.
Fundamentally, OEVA believes that the current RCTOD list of “approved” uses within the zoning overlay is one of the biggest flaws. Governments should not impose limits on the public’s creativity. Instead, the CRA could generate a list of reasonable uses that would be incompatible with the surrounding neighborhood. Everything else would be permissible. Restricting creativity in a free-flowing forward thinking Walking Arts District, seems counter-productive.
Another issue OEVA is concerned about within the RCTOD is the lack of regulatory continuity. Over the years there have been many interpretations of what the RCTOD zoning is and how to use it. There needs to be one clear and easily accessible information source for the RCTOD zoning overlay. That reference should include a RCTOD Owner / User’s Bill of Rights and guidelines on how to appeal governmental decisions.
A pioneering user of the RCTOD zoning once wrote: “From the beginning the RCTOD was confusing and difficult because no single employee or department of the County had a clear understanding of the Overlay. In the Sarasota County Unified Development Code (UDC), the description and the intention behind the RCTOD arts overlay district is well stated but in practice, it remained challenging.”
“Englewood’s tourism faces enormous competitive pressures. Our single street downtown simply cannot compete with the expansive communities that are rapidly growing nearby. To survive, rules must be updated, bent, even broken so even modest investments from artists and craftsmen around the nation can help us develop a vibrant Walking Arts District unique to our County and endlessly inviting to the public.”
OEVA realizes that this is a long-term project that will face support, opposition, and neglect in the years ahead. Some will argue to leave it unchanged. They like it the way it is now, a beloved downtown that is one street wide, three blocks long and that all our organizational resources should be focused on promoting the existing commercial base.
To those I would say, ask yourself, what would a multi-block, Dearborn Street connected, Walking Arts District full of home-based business mean to our downtown? We would have what most modern developments envy, blocks of connected welcoming old Florida homes full of curios, foods, crafts, art, supplies and services. Visitors will love it.
If we unite now behind the future the RCTOD project represents, while creatively managing the present, then the generations that follow us will enjoy an expanded downtown that will be full of life, entertainment, opportunities and prosperity for all.
Todd Tracy is the Vice President of OEVA (Olde Englewood Village Association).